Jeremy Warner: More banks is what we chiefly need

Outlook: Dear old Alan Greenspan. Ever since the banking crisis first broke, the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve has been furiously scribbling away in an attempt to defend his legacy from the growing weight of lacerating commentary which blames Greenspan himself for allowing financial markets to run amok and the boom to get out of control.

He's been at it again this week. His arguments are now familiar enough. Number one is that Mr Greenspan's faith in markets was based on a false premise – that enlightened self-interest alone would ensure that owners and managers of financial institutions would not take such extreme risks with their capital that they endangered the whole system. That assumption turned out to be wrong.

Number two is that though it is certainly possible for monetary policy to defuse asset bubbles of the type that led to the credit crunch, it can only be done at the expense of crushing economic activity. No central banker would willingly take such action. Number three is that though it may be easy enough to identify an asset bubble in the making, determining when the euphoria of a bubble turns into the fear of a bust is virtually impossible.

All these are no doubt valid points which contain lessons for the future. But they would have a lot more credibility were it not for the fact that, as chairman of the Fed, Mr Greenspan had responsibility for banking supervision as well as monetary policy.

The Bank of England's failure to foresee and prevent the credit crunch can be blamed partly on the fact that when the Bank was given independence in 1997, it was stripped of responsibility for banking supervision. The Fed, which had responsibility for oversight and yet still failed to see the credit crunch coming, has no such excuse.

In the lead-up to the G20 meeting, much twaddle has been said and debated about how to reform and reboot the regulation of banks and financial markets so that they cannot do this to us again.

It's hard to disagree with much of it, but it's equally hard to see it doing much good. Banks are so chastened by the experience of the last two years that for the time being they don't need regulating at all to prevent them from misbehaving. Banking has always been extraordinarily highly regulated, yet somehow or other the box-ticking teenagers of banking supervision always manage to miss the big picture. Like a swollen river, an excess of capital will invariably find its way around any obstacle that is put in front of it.

Failures in regulation are nearly always qualitative, rather than quantitative. It doesn't matter what capital controls, checks and balances, stress-testing, rules, regulations and accounting standards are put in place, unless there is some wise old bird sitting there at the top with a long enough memory to know the causes and consequences of the last banking crisis, and the force of will and independence of mind to defy the politicians, there's always eventually going to be another bust.

The bizarre thing about Mr Greenspan is that on the face of it, he was indeed old and wise enough to play that role, yet he too allowed himself to get sucked into the euphoria of the bubble, and worse, started to believe – as all policymakers do if they are in the job long enough – that the apparent success of the economy was all down to him.

Mr Greenspan forgot the golden rule of central banking, invented by one of his forebears, that you must always remove the punch bowl just as the party gets going. He did the opposite, thereby encouraging the view that whenever the economy or financial system stalled, the Fed would come riding to the rescue.

This was not the only form of moral hazard that policymakers were instrumental in creating. They also encouraged the development and formation of "mega-banks", in the mistaken belief that such organisations would be too big to fail and therefore would be easier to regulate. The reverse turned out to be true. Not only did they fail, but, because they had become too systemically important, the taxpayer has been forced to prop them up.

Encouraging more competition in banking ought to be one of the first priorities of regulatory reform. A larger number of smaller banks may be more difficult to keep any eye on, but failures are also far less likely to be systemically significant and would therefore encourage the rediscovery of such good, old-fashioned financial virtues as caveat emptor. Predictably, this common-sense idea doesn't seem to form any part of the G20's current reform agenda. Rather, it is all about the doomed endeavour of how better to regulate the mega-banks.

Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
Arts and Entertainment
Ed Sheeran performs at his Amazon Front Row event on Tuesday 30 September
musicHe spotted PM at private gig
Arts and Entertainment
Mystery man: Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike in '‘Gone Girl'
films... by the director David Fincher
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
books(and not a Buzzfeed article in sight)
Kim Jong Un gives field guidance during his inspection of the Korean People's Army (KPA) Naval Unit 167
newsSouth Korean reports suggest rumours of a coup were unfounded
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
stoptober... when the patch, gum and cold turkey had all failed
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Trainee Recruitment Consultant - Birmingham - Real Staffing

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: Real Staffing are currently lo...

Trust Accountant - Kent

NEGOTIABLE: Austen Lloyd: TRUST ACCOUNTANT - KENTIf you are a Chartered Accou...

Graduate Recruitment Consultant - 2013/14 Grads - No Exp Needed

£18000 - £20000 per annum + OTE £30000: SThree: SThree are a global FTSE 250 b...

Law Costs

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - Law Costs Draftsperson - NICHE...

Day In a Page

Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?